Backers, foes find fodder in Coughlin’s term as county attorney

John Coughlin’s tenure as Hillsborough county attorney last year was as tumultuous as it was brief.

Coughlin, who Gov. Craig Benson has nominated to become a judge in Derry District Court, raised hackles among his staff and his own political party during his one year in office.

Coughlin’s supporters argue his tenure in that office should count in his favor, however.

“He unseated a very popular long-term county attorney, and that did present some problems with the staff,” Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter said. “Those are well-documented.

“I think he should be very proud that he was elected by the people of Hillsborough County to serve in that position. I think it’s a great appointment. . . . I’m happy for him.”

Coughlin’s experience in private practice, as a military lawyer and as chairman of the state Human Rights Commission more than qualify him for the bench, Streeter said.

Coughlin has practiced law since 1983 in civilian and military courts, and chaired the Human Rights Commission under the past three governors. The commission hears discrimination and civil rights complaints.

“To me, that indicates a temperament that would be valued as a member of the judiciary, that he would understand the civil rights of everyone who would appear before him. He’s not an ideologue,” Streeter said.

“Obviously, he’s not been a member of a very prominent law firm, but I don’t think that should hinder him,” Streeter said. Some of the best judges have come from smaller practices, he said.

Coughlin previously was a partner in the Nashua law firm of Coughlin & Daniels, and worked for several years as a contract attorney, taking cases on assignment from district courts when public defenders weren’t available. More recently, he has worked in private practice out of his home in Mont Vernon.

Republican Coughlin took office as Hillsborough county attorney in January 2003 after defeating longtime incumbent Peter McDonough in the 2002 election, as well as a recount and a court challenge over ballot counting.

Coughlin resigned in December 2003 after he was called into service in Iraq with the Army National Guard. A major and military lawyer in the Army National Guard, Coughlin is serving in Iraq and is scheduled to remain there at least until March.

Grumbling among prosecutors and staff began within months after Coughlin took over the county attorney’s office. Coughlin hired his close friend Marc Coro of Milford and former assistant Merrimack County attorney Scott Jordan at top-grade pay, and other prosecutors complained they weren’t carrying top-grade caseloads.

Morale problems were manifest in a conversation between Coughlin and Jordan, which was somehow recorded on the office voicemail system. Coughlin referred to the Nashua office as “a bed of snakes” on the recording, and Jordan expressed anger with one colleague, saying he’d like to “clip her over the head.”

Coughlin called for an independent investigation into the recording, and later announced the results were “inconclusive.” His successor, Marguerite Wageling, said soon after taking office that she had seen no report on the matter and had no interest in pursuing it.

Jordan and Coro tendered their resignations before Wageling took office, she said.

Had Coughlin not been called up for active duty, Streeter said he is confident Coughlin would have smoothed any ruffled feathers and would still be serving as county attorney.

A Hillsborough County prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed with Streeter that Coughlin’s troubles in the office shouldn’t weigh against him.

“I think it was incredibly difficult, coming into the office,” the prosecutor said. “Everybody had been hired and working for Peter (McDonough) for decades.”

Coughlin took heat even for family photographs he hung on the wall of his office, however. Some staff and visitors took offense at photos showing Coughlin pointing a toy gun at his wife and holding a sword over his infant son, and then-Attorney General Peter Heed advised Coughlin to take them down.

Coughlin also butted heads with Hillsborough County commissioners over their decision to move attorney Carolyn Kirby, who handles the county’s civil cases, out of his office and under their direct authority.

Coughlin charged commissioners were usurping the constitutional authority of his office and threatened to sue. His comments drew heavy criticism from lawmakers at the county and state levels.

Coughlin was no stranger to political controversy even before his term as county attorney.

In 2000, Coughlin served as acting administrative assistant to Streeter, who was then newly elected as mayor. One of Coughlin’s first acts on the job was to order the city’s MIS workers to restore files deleted from computers in former Mayor Donald Davidson’s office.

Davidson sued the city, charging invasion of privacy, and Coughlin later withdrew his name from consideration for the mayor’s aide job, citing the political brouhaha ensuing from the computer files controversy.